Early Life of Lewis Latimer: Son of Escaped African Slaves Becomes Electric Lighting Innovator

Photo: Lewis Howard Latimer
Lewis Howard Latimer's story begins before he was born, but I guess that may be said about all of our stories. The years leading up to Lewis' birth were particularly interesting because his parents George and Rebecca Latimer made a firm decision to escape Virginia's slavery. According to Dr. Winifred Latimer Norman, Lewis' granddaughter, the family's papers recount the determination of his mother Rebecca to "not be the mother of a slave."

Lewis Latimer's Parents Escape Slavery

In 1842, Rebecca Latimer devised a very peculiar plan to escape slavery. She and her husband George would escape slavery by his passing as White and acting as his more hued wife's master. They did leave Norfolk, Virginia accompanied as master and servant. They headed for Baltimore and continued to Boston, Massachusetts. This is the family history Lewis Latimer was born into on September 4, 1848, the youngest of four children, in Chelsea, Massachusetts. 

When the Latimer's arrived in Boston, George was immediately recognized. He was imprisoned as a fugitive slave. Rebecca had escaped capture. George's owner refused to give up his efforts to have him returned to Norfolk, Virginia as his personal property. Fortunately, the Latimers arrived in a Boston that had a strong slavery abolition movement brewing. Bostonians did not like the fact that their tax dollars were being used to enforce the fugitive slave law. George Latimer's case became a slavery abolitionist cause.

William Lloyd Garrison publicized the case in his abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. It included a letter from Frederick Douglass regarding the community's efforts to secure George Latimer's freedom. After a month's stay in jail, Black abolitionist purchased his freedom from his owner for $400.00. Rebecca remained a fugitive, coming in and out of family life as she could. According to the family records, Rebecca worked at jobs that allowed her protection from detection in spaces were the fugitive slave law was still enforced.  Eventually, George Latimer's high profile case garnered the signature of 65,000 Massachusetts citizens that led to the passage of a state law that "all judges, justices of the peace, and officers of the commonwealth, are forbidden, under heavy penalties, to aid or act in any manner in the arrest, detention, or delivery of any person claimed as a fugitive slave."
Lewis Latimer Contributions to Electric Lighting

In light of his family's history, it is no surprise that the young Lewis would want to participate in the U.S. Civil War. In 1864, at the age 16 years, Lewis lied about his age and enlisted in the Union Navy. He would serve aboard the USS Massasoit and saw military action on the James River in Virginia near the plantations where his parents had been enslaved.

Lewis Latimer Returns to Boston

After the U.S. Civil War ended, Lewis returned to Boston. He secured a job as an office assistant in the patent law firm of Crosby and Gould. Here, he became fascinated with the mechanical drawings the draftsmen prepared for the U.S. Patent Office. Lewis taught himself mechanical drawing. Soon, he was hired at the firm as a patent draftsman. He stayed with the patent firm for twelve years and became its chief draftsman. He believed, as many during that time, that patenting inventions was the way to wealth.

In Boston, Lewis also met Alexander Graham Bell. According to his journal, he made the drawings for Bell's first patent application for the telephone. In 1879, Lewis left Boston with Mary, his new bride, and moved to Bridgeport, Connecticut -- a kind of silicon valley of technology innovation at its time. In 1881, Lewis' patent for the "Incandescent Electric Light Bulb with Carbon Filament" was sold to the United States Electric Company. In 1882, Lewis patented a process for efficiently manufacturing the carbon filament, as well as developed the now famous threaded socket for his improved bulb. In 1890, Lewis wrote the first book on electric lighting, "Incandescent Electric Lighting". He went on to innovate and was a major contributor to the international installation of public electric lights. Lewis contributed to public lightings in Philadelphia, New York, Montreal, and London.

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